It would be easy for the events of August Strindberg’s 1888 play to seem, 120 years later, a fuss about nothing. The pretty young lady of the house throws herself at a manservant, they have sex and the power balance between them changes. Should this be the cause of such hysteria, not to mention a tragic ending?
It would be even easier to forget that Miss Julie was an innovative piece, an experiment in naturalism, with its (now familiar) single arc and no division into acts. But it should still seem shocking.
These two characters can, of course, take the audience with them on their erotic rollercoaster during a Midsummer Night of misrule. They can build tension and persuade us of the inevitability of the outcome, but this doesn’t quite happen in Stephen Unwin’s production. The width of the stage, so helpful to the comedy in the Rose’s partner production, Bedroom Farce, tends here to diffuse the sense of claustrophobia, of the imprisonment of Jean and Miss Julie in the expectations of their respective class and gender. Simon Higlett’s set is certainly handsome - a 19th-century kitchen with real cooking facilities and a water pump - but the extra space at each side shows us, unnecessarily, the bedrooms of Jean and his fiancee Kristin, the cook.
In Strindberg’s text the crucial act happens off-stage, its erotic excitement expressed instead by the wild dance of peasants who invade the kitchen. Here the seduction is visible in Jean’s bedroom and the whirling dance (performed by drama and dance students from the university attached to the theatre) provides distraction rather than metaphor.
Oddly, despite being ostensibly more explicit than usual, Unwin’s production seems less interested in sex than Strindberg’s other preoccupations: class and feminism. Miss Julie’s upbringing by an unconventional mother who taught her never to be under a man’s power is given full weight. Strindberg’s misogyny and his hatred of the new feminist ideas have never been clearer.
Lucy Briers embodies the languid, down-trodden manner of the sketchily-written Kristin. In the lead roles, Rachel Pickup is beautiful and Daniel Betts a swaggering Jean, but the urgency of lust between them remains elusive.